With hours to go before the polls open in Nebraska’s Republican primary for U.S. Senator, about the safest bet anyone can make is that, whoever emerges as the nominee, the GOP will pick up the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson in November. Virtually every poll shows any of the three major Republican hopefuls handily defeating the certain Democratic nominee: former Sen. (1988-2000) Bob Kerrey, who has lived, voted and paid taxes in Manhattan until moving back to the Cornhusker State earlier this year to reclaim his former seat.
Once the runaway front-runner, State Attorney General Jon Bruning now finds himself hard-pressed by two opponents, State Treasurer Don Stenberg and State Sen. Deb Fischer. Stenberg has particularly slammed Bruning as an ersatz conservative, attacking his opponent for voting for supporting a state sales tax while in the state senate and more recently publicly blessing the $4 million Nebraska received from the Obama stimulus package. Stenberg has even dusted off an essay for the college newspaper that the young Bruning wrote while at the University of Nebraska’s Lincoln College of Law criticizing Ronald Reagan and denouncing supply side economics as a “farce.”
Bruning supporters fire back by pointing out that Stenberg is making his fourth try at a Senate run, having lost primaries by large margins in 1996 and 2006 and a close general election to Nelson twelve//12 years ago. Even supporters of Stenberg agree that as solid a conservative as their man is, his prowess at fund-raising is, well, modest.
But Bruning and Stenberg have some competition that is surging in the twilight days of the race. State Sen. Fischer, once considered a long-shot, has moved up to the front of the race with her two opponents. Much of this has to do with her endorsement from Sarah Palin, which still packs a wallop in GOP primaries, and from SHEPAC, which supports pro-life and pro-family women candidates.
In the last week, support for Fischer has mushroomed. Along with her endorsement from Palin, the lawmaker has benefited from a broadside launched by the new SuperPAC Ending Spending, which attacks Bruning for getting rich while attorney general and suggests shady dealings. The SuperPAC, which has bought $200,000 in TV time over the last few days, is the work of TD Ameritrade founder Joe Rickets.
But, like Bruning, Fischer’s conservative credentials are questioned. As blogosphere political pundit Matt Lewis wrote in the Daily Caller, “I wonder if Palin realizes that in 2008, Fischer voted “yes” on LB 959, which included a $14.5 million appropriation for road-building, funded by gas tax hike. (Gov. Dave Heinemann line-item vetoed the tax hike, and decreased road funding by the $14 million that tax hike would have collected. Fischer then voted to override the veto.” — a move that only delays tax increases.)
Bruning has been endorsed by former presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. Stenberg has the backing of Republican Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Jim DeMint (S.C.), as well as Freedomworks and the Club for Growth. On Monday afternoon, Herman Cain weighed in for Fischer.
Quite a few national conservative heavyweights appear to have considerable interest in Nebraska and are taking sides—which is not such risky business when one realizes that the Republican is, in all likelihood, going to be the U.S. Senator.